Patience is one of the fundamental truths of training as a natural athlete. Without the use of anabolic steroids, you have to do a lot of things right, over a long time, to make serious gains. Dedication, desire, and discipline are all prerequisites but alone are not enough. Maximizing progress requires giving yourself every advantage possible. It’s paramount to follow a well-constructed training program, get adequate rest and recovery, sleep eight or more hours per night, and spend as much time in a caloric surplus or at least maintenance as possible.
Building muscle is hard. It’s even harder without adequate calorie intake. Luckily, the caloric surplus doesn’t need to be large. The days of “dirty bulking” are over. The truth is, only a few hundred extra calories per day will do the trick, but there are no shortcuts in physiology. Even a small to moderately sized caloric surplus will eventually result in the accumulation of body fat.
So, how do we balance building muscle and strength optimally, without getting too fat? And, how do we avoid sabotaging our progress by spending too much time in a caloric deficit? As you may have assumed from the title, this is where mini-cuts enter the picture.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy!
What are mini-cuts?
Recently, mini-cuts have been gaining a lot of attention across the fitness community. I even contemplated not adding additional clutter. However, I wanted to provide insight into how I use mini-cuts because I’m sure some nuances differ from everyone else.
Let us start by defining what we mean by mini-cut. The name gives it away, but for clarity, a mini-cut is a short, aggressive fat loss phase used in the middle of a long gaining period. Typically, mini-cuts last anywhere from three to six weeks. The idea is, a mini-cut is long enough and aggressive enough to lose a few pounds, but not too long to keep you away from optimal training.
Mini-cuts differ from traditional fat loss phases in a couple of ways. With conventional fat loss phases, we have three goals. The first goal is to lose as much fat as we can or at least reach our specific fat loss target. However, a very close second is maintaining muscle. We know, based on research and anecdotal experience, the longer someone is in a caloric deficit, and the more weight they lose, the greater chance there is for muscle and strength loss. Lastly, when running a conventional diet, we want the fat loss to be somewhat sustainable. Most people can lose weight successfully but struggle to keep it off.
The best method for traditional fat loss is the long, slow, and steady approach, which often involves losing between .5 and 1% of body weight per week for 16 or more weeks. It’s a long time, but it allows us to lose a significant amount of fat while minimizing muscle and performance loss, at least as best we can. As we mentioned, it’s not without flaws, but when you have a lot of weight to lose, it’s the best we have.
Since mini-cuts are shorter in duration, we can be aggressive without the risk of losing muscle and strength. With mini-cuts, we are generally looking at losing between .75 and 1.25% of body weight per week. The shorter the cut, the more aggressive we can be and vice versa. Additionally, how much body fat you have to lose matters as well. The leaner you are, the more conservative you should be with weekly weight loss goals.
Common mistakes people make when implementing mini-cuts
Although there are many ways to set up a mini-cut depending on your goals and what you are trying to accomplish, there are some common mistakes you should avoid.
#1: Cutting too long
The most common mistake people make with mini-cuts is blurring the lines between a mini-cut and a conventional cut, which defeats the purpose. As previously mentioned, a mini-cut should last anywhere from three to six weeks. In some circumstances, they can be up to eight weeks, but that would be the absolute max. For comparison, the shortest a traditional cut should be is around twelve weeks.
#2: Not being aggressive enough
Going hand in hand with the last point, a big reason why people end up extending their mini-cut longer is due to a lack of aggressiveness, and therefore not making enough progress in the allotted time. One challenge with mini-cuts is that it is hard to make adjustments on the fly since we only have a few weeks to work. Due to the briefness, your starting calories need to be on-point right from the start, which is not too difficult if you have been consistent with your diet and weighing yourself regularly.
It may come down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the purpose of mini-cuts is. It could be a battle of semantics, but a mini-cut is not a conservative cut where you stay in a small caloric deficit for an extended period. By nature, traditional cuts are sustainable and designed to prevent muscle loss. Setting up a diet with less weekly weight loss than .5% of body weight per week would be a waste of time under most circumstances.
#3: Doing mini-cuts too frequently.
The most damaging mistake people make regarding mini-cuts is doing them too frequently. I call this chronic dieting, and it is an issue a lot of people struggle with avoiding.
Let me lay out the scenario. You want to gain muscle and get stronger, so you start a lean bulk. You set up your calories to be in a small surplus and the first couple of weeks go as planned. Your strength is up, the sleeves on your t-shirt are snug, all is well. You are starting to wonder why you valued having abs so much in the past.
After about four weeks, the mood starts to turn. You step on the bathroom scale one morning and see a number higher than expected. Quick, you head over to the mirror to hit an ab shot only to realize definition is starting to fade. Feeling discouraged, you decide to end the gaining phase right then and there. You decide its time to start cutting. After a few weeks in a deficit, you feel small, which brings the urge to start gaining again. The cycle continues. Sound familiar? I spent a lot of time on chronic dieting in my teenage years. Chronic dieting is not using mini-cuts effectively.
If you’ve had chronic dieting problems in the past, mini-cuts might not be the best idea for you. Just stick to traditional gaining, maintaining, and cutting cycles for the time being until you get control of your situation.
You only want to do one or two mini-cuts a year. Or, one mini-cut and one conventional cut. If you need to do mini-cuts more frequently than that, chances are, your calories are too high during the gaining periods.
As an example, a typical yearly mini-cut cycle may look like this.
12-week caloric surplus 6-week mini-cut 12-week caloric surplus 6-week mini-cut 12-week caloric surplus
Reasons to Mini-Cut
#1: Lose body fat in the middle of a gaining cycle
As we already discussed, the main reason I implement mini-cuts is to keep body fat in check during long periods of focusing on building muscle. It’s hard to perform optimally in the gym and build muscle while maintaining low body fat. It’s not the low body fat that causes the problem, its what it takes to keep it. Caloric deficits do not allow you to gain as much muscle and strength as possible it’s just the way it is. To perform at your best, you want to avoid being in a caloric deficit for much of the year. Unfortunately, this requires gaining a little body fat.
Mini-cuts come into play any time your body fat starts to creep up higher than you like. Let’s say you finish a traditional cut at roughly ten or twelve percent body fat, which is very lean, probably leaner than you think. From there, you can consistently eat in a surplus and gain weight until your body fat gets up to fifteen, sixteen, seventeen percent, etc. wherever you feel comfortable. From there, you can implement a mini-cut to drop back down a few pounds. The goal is not necessarily to lose all of the fat you gained, just some. The mini-cut will give you a few more months of gaining before you need to consider doing another one or a conventional cut.
The lines get blurred as you advance in your lifting career. Advanced lifters who generally like the look of their physiques can spend more time eating around maintenance calories without traditional gaining and cutting cycles. I set my diet up like this. Even with this approach, body fat still accumulates little by little over time. In this situation, you can get by with only one mini-cut per year or potentially have years not needing to mini-cut at all.
#2: The Pre Diet
The second reason to implement mini-cuts is what I call the pre-diet. Most people don’t realize how much weight they need to lose to get the physique they want. Sometimes it’s more fat than you can lose in one long stretch without too many negative consequences. In these cases, a mini-cut can help you get within striking distance for a more successful conventional cut.
The idea is, do a six-week mini-cut, establish good habits, drop some body fat, then go back to maintenance for a month or two before jumping into a conventional cut to reach the ultimate fat loss goal. You can also think of this as one cut with a diet break after six weeks. The only distinction would be, if the mini-cut is successful, the maintenance phase can be a little longer than a traditional diet break.
#3: As a way to facilitate more muscle growth
I feel like this is as much psychological as physiological. On the surface, it sounds fun to be able to eat a ton of calories, 3–4k a day, while lifting hard and heavy. By the way, it is fun. Eating in a surplus, while training hard is the best way to make progress. However, at some point, the desire to eat takes a hit, and eating enough quality food to facilitate progress gets challenging. It essentially becomes a full-time job! A mini-cut can be a way to break things up. Plus, the drop in body fat drop is rarely a bad thing even if you don’t particularly need it.
Since it takes a lot less training volume to maintain muscle versus what is required to build it, you can use this period to lower training volume as well.
#4: To prepare for a vacation, photoshoot, etc.
A vacation only really calls for a mini-cut. Let’s say you have a trip coming up in three to six weeks and want to drop a little body fat before hitting the beach. A slow, sustainable, fat loss plan wouldn’t do the job. To make noticeable progress in such a short period, you need to lose more weight per week.
The one downside is, it’s easy to gain most of the weight back if you are enjoying yourself while on vacation, which you should be.
#5: When your diet has been inconsistent
Last but not least, you can use mini-cuts to get yourself back on track. Over the years, I have encountered a lot of clients who fell into this category. Typically, when you fall off the wagon with your nutrition, body fat accumulates quickly, even if you stay consistent in the gym. In these situations, a mini-cut can be a morale booster. Seeing relatively fast progress can lead to better nutritional consistency. I will say this doesn’t work for everyone and has the potential to backfire.
Reasons not to mini-cut
Now that we have gone over the reasons why it would make sense to do a mini-cut, now let’s look at a few reasons it wouldn’t.
#1: If you are a beginner
Mini-cuts are not for beginners. When you first start training, the “newbie gains” effect causes improvements in body composition simultaneously. It’s not uncommon to gain muscle while losing body fat right out of the gate. The entire first year of training can be a body composition improvement phase, even while eating at maintenance or a caloric surplus. Unless you have a lot of body fat to lose, in which case a traditional cut would be more appropriate, as a beginner, focus on fueling performance rather than implementing mini-cuts.
#2: People with a lot going on.
Life periodization is a concept I talk about that deals with dividing up your year into different phases. During times when you have a lot going on, it’s nearly impossible to give everything equal attention. There will be times when your job, schooling, or family need extra time and attention. There will also be times when your schedule opens up and allows for fitness to take center stage. Look, mini-cuts are short, but they are pretty demanding. If you are moving, changing jobs, or having twins in the next three to six weeks, it’s not a good time for a mini-cut. Life periodization is a life skill that can turn you into a more effective person.
#3: Leading up to a powerlifting meet
Mini-cuts are not a great option leading up to a powerlifting meet or any other weight class sport. I know this may seem counterintuitive because this is how most people do it, but it’s not the best way. Ideally, if you need to lose weight for a meet, tournament, etc. you would run a mini-cut or a traditional fat loss phase at least six to eight weeks ahead of time to get you within range of a water cut. There are a couple of advantages to doing it this way. One, this allows you to eat at maintenance throughout the most challenging part of training leading up to the meet. Eating at maintenance will improve performance and recovery. Second, anecdotally I have found the longer you are at a given weight, the more comfortable you will be performing at that weight.
I recognize sometimes you have to do what you have to do to make weight, but ideally, the last six weeks before a meet is not the best time for a mini-cut.
How to set up a mini-cut
The goal of a mini-cut is to facilitate weight loss in the range mentioned earlier, between .75–1.25% of body weight per week. Essentially, the deficit is as big as possible without tanking performance and potentially losing muscle.
The first step with any diet is to figure out calorie intake. The best way to do this is by knowing your maintenance based on your current calorie intake. The problem is, to do this, you need to have been consistently tracking your food intake. The second best way is by using a formula to find Basal Metabolic Rate and using an activity multiplier. Two calculations I like are the Mifflin-St. Jeor and the Katch-McArdle. However, if you want to keep it as simple as possible, you can multiply your bodyweight by nine for women or ten for men. I outlined this method in my book Bodybuilding for Beginners.
MEN: BMR = (Body Weight in lbs x 10)
WOMEN: BMR = (Body Weight in lbs x 9)
From there, we take the BMR figure and use an activity multiplier to find an estimated maintenance caloric intake.
Here is the activity multiplier I used in Bodybuilding for Beginners.
Sedentary: multiply by 1.2–1.4 (fewer than 5,000 steps per day and less than four workouts per week)
Average: multiply by 1.4–1.6 (between 5,000 and 8,000 steps per day and four or fewer workouts per week)
Active: multiply by 1.6 up to 2.2 (more than 8,000 steps per day and at least four workouts per week)
It’s ok if the numbers are not perfect, but we want them as accurate as possible because we will only have one shot at an adjustment.
Once we get the calories set, we have to figure out macros.
Protein intake: 1–1.2g per pound of bodyweight
(or if you are overweight, 1g per pound of goal weight may work out better)
I tend to recommend a little more protein with mini-cuts to help prevent hunger.
Fat intake: ~20% of total calories. I like to keep fat on the low end to allow us to prioritize carbohydrates as much as possible.
Carbohydrate intake: Fill out the rest of the calorie intake with carbohydrates.
For example, let’s set me up with a mini-cut.
I am 160lbs, and my maintenance calorie intake is around 2600 calories. For my mini-cut, I want to shoot for losing 1.5 pounds per week, which is roughly a 750 calorie deficit per day. Therefore, my intake would be as follows.
190g protein (1.2g/lb)
40g fat (20%)
That’s not terrible.
For demonstration purposes, if I was not losing enough weight after two weeks, I could adjust by dropping 200 calories from the diet.
The macros would look like this.
Ok, now this looks pretty brutal. Luckily, it would only be for a couple of weeks. Now maybe you see why mini-cuts are short term.
We can use cardio as well to help facilitate weight loss but, I wouldn’t go crazy with it. Aim for 10,000 steps per day or 30–45 minutes of accumulated low-intensity cardio.
As far as the diet goes, since calorie intake is low, I would prioritize vegetables and nutrient-dense foods, foods that have a lot of volume without many calories. Mini-cuts are not the time to be flexible and fit Pop-Tarts and sour candy into the diet. You will end up hungry and miserable.
It might even be a good idea to partition carbs pre-training to help facilitate good workouts.
What to do after the mini-cut
Lastly, I wanted to talk about what you should do after a mini-cut. One thing I would not recommend doing is a reverse diet where you slowly add calories back in and prolong the deficit. I recommend jumping right up to your calculated maintenance for a week or two and then decide what your next move is.
After you increase calories, expect water and glycogen to shoot up, and cause weight gain right away. A little weight gain is ok the water and glycogen may even cause your physique to look better!
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